Rustem Kazazi is a 64-year-old immigrant from Albania. Kazazi, his wife and son arrived here in 2005 through the State Department's visa lottery program and became American citizens in 2010. Now they live just outside of Cleveland.
On Oct. 24, 2017, Kazazi decided to take a trip back to Albania. Before he left, he took money he and his family and saved up for the past 12 years — $58,100 — out of the bank and packed it in his carry-on bag. He said that he planned to help make repairs on some property his family owned and maybe purchase a vacation home there.
Legally, travelers can take as much money as they want out of the U.S. as long as they declare any amount in excess of $10,000. Kazazi said that he planned to fill out his declaration form during a layover in Newark. But the money would never make it out of the United States.
The TSA was the first to notice the money during their routine security check. They alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which conducted a strip search of Kazazi and took his money.
Kazazi cannot speak English very well, and was confused about what was happening. He was never charged with a crime, and the CBP found no evidence of any wrongdoing, but they kept the money. And they can legally do just that under civil asset forfeiture laws.
What's civil asset forfeiture?
Civil asset forfeiture is one of the few issues where some conservatives and the American Civil Liberties Union are on the same page.
Under civil asset forfeiture guidelines, U.S. authorities can seize property that they believe to be involved in a crime without charging the owner of that property with a crime. Owners often are forced to give up any chance of ever seeing their property again, if they don't want to get caught in an often costly legal battle.
In 2017 alone, federal civil asset forfeitures alone added up to about $2 billion. States have their own version of this law, with some states offering more protections for citizens than others. In many states, the value of confiscated property can become the property of the same law enforcement agencies that participated in its seizure, leading to tremendous opportunity for corruption.
Randy Petersen, senior researcher for Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told TheBlaze:
A Right on Crime poll from last year found that 88% of Texans believed the government should secure a criminal conviction before forfeiting property. However, we still operate under a system where the mere accusation, against the property and not the owner no less, allows the government to seize and keep money and property from our citizens. This case points out that the problem is not an abuse of the system, but the system itself.
Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs at FreedomWorks, also weighed on on this issue. Pye told TheBlaze:
Stories like this one are really heartbreaking. A family comes here, earns citizenship, and the government quite literally steal their life savings based on the mere suspicion that they've done something. This is the problem with federal forfeiture laws. An individual doesn't have to be arrested, tried, or convicted to lose their property. This undermines the right to private property and due process, two fundamental civil liberties. There has been legislation introduced in the Congress — the FAIR Act and the DUE PROCESS Act — that would reform federal forfeiture laws. Unfortunately, those bills are stalled in committee, and it's quite likely that the Department of Justice opposes those bills. Still, innocent people are suffering because of forfeiture laws, and this case is just another example. Something has to change.
But the system also has its staunch supporters
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is an active supporter of civil asset forfeiture. Sessions reactivated the full version of the program in July 2017 (the Obama administration had previously ended parts of it, citing abuse), despite bipartisan criticism.
Sessions argued that the program was essential in helping law enforcement to combat organized crime. He also appointed a watchdog to oversee the program and to "make the necessary changes to the program to ensure it continues to operate in an accountable and responsible way."
Some of the money involved in this Kazazi case may have gone missing
A month after the incident at the airport, Customs sent a notice to the Kazazis that read: “This is to notify you that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) seized the property described below at Cleveland, OH on October 24, 2017: $57,330 in U.S. Currency. Enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.”
But $57,330 was $770 less than the $58,100 Kazazi had brought with him. Even if he had somehow miscounted, Kazazi insists that he brought only $100 bills.
Wesley Hottot, the lawyer for the Kazazis, told the Washington Post that discrepancies like this were common in civil asset forfeiture and always ended up with the amount of money officially recorded being less than the amount that defendants claimed to have had confiscated.
Kazazi was never charged with smuggling, drug trafficking, or money laundering, and the CBP never clarified if he was being accused of all of those crimes or just one from that category.
The Kazazi family has now filed a lawsuit against the CBP in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. The Kazazis want the full return of the $58,100.
Customs and Border Protection was reached for comment, but a CBP spokesperson said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.